After many tours of duty backing the rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins and providing the muscle behind Bob Dylan’s move towards electric rock, the four Canadians and one Arkansan comprising the Band were pedigreed to a legendary extent even before making their first album. By the time they issued the twinned masterpieces Music From Big Pink in 1968 and The Band in 1969, their polymathic command of multiple genres, and self-conscious embrace of traditional American folk, country, bluegrass, and zydeco had established them as the thinking fan’s alternative to the diminishing returns of psychedelia and the counterculture. On tracks like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” principal songwriter Robbie Robertson alchemized the group’s hard-won experience into songs whose subject matter was the grand mosaic of human comedy and endless suffering, with an emphasis on those who survive and persevere. For critics, audiences and no-lesser peers than the Beatles, they had come to represent authenticity personified. So. How do you follow that up?
The answer came in the form of Stage Fright, a charming, loose-limbed collection that elides the chore of living up to the previous records by basically not even trying. If their first two LPs inspired the Beatles and Stones to return to basics, Stage Fright connotes an entirely different sphere of influence: it’s a nonpareil boogie album, whose in-the-pocket playing establishes the Band as the equal of groovemaster peers like Booker T. and the Meters and sets a predicate for followers like Little Feat and NRBQ. The Band’s signature was always the telepathic interplay between bassist Rick Danko, guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist-shaman Garth Hudson. This is Stage Fright’s great selling point. The group never sounded more effervescent or imaginative than on tracks like the strutting “Strawberry Wine” or the layabout-anthem “Time to Kill,” a rollicking tribute to a week off the road that serves as a subtext to the punishing touring schedule that would eventually become the Band’s undoing. What Stage Fright lacks in history lessons it makes up for in palpable joy. They would never seem so happy again.
The new 50th-anniversary reissue restores the album to its ostensible original running order, appends a typically epochal live concert from the following year, and retrieves an intimate set of early demos recorded on a long night in a Calgary hotel. None of this is uninteresting and some of it is indispensable, but it’s ultimately a long way around towards building up the reputation of an LP that never really needed defending. Like Dylan’s New Morning from the same year, the relatively small stakes of Stage Fright are inextricable from its charm. Sometimes music needs to carry the weight, and other times it needs to feel weightless.
Revising the tracklist of a record on its 50th anniversary is a dubious enterprise, but the updated running order is a compelling thought experiment. New opener “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” is among the Band’s most sterling jams, led by a buckshot guitar riff that anticipates Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” by two years. “The Shape I’m In,” now batting second, is an ebullient tribute to volitional desiccation that bears the imprint of emergent weirdo-genius Todd Rundgren, Stage Fright’s surprising choice for a sound engineer. Rundgren and the Band are a strange admixture, but somehow the Badfinger-meets-Bakersfield vibe brilliantly coheres. The supercharged hooks of the title track trade in the slow-rock of the first two LPs for something approaching power-pop: an urtext for Big Star and Wilco.
The Band had greater records to come and many rivers to ford. 1975’s wonderful Northern Lights-Southern Cross returned them to deeper historical considerations and 1978’s concert film and album The Last Waltz effectively sealed their legend and put a pin in both the Band and the era they’d reigned over. In the fractious aftermath of all that occurred—the endless days on the road, the fights over publishing rights, the impossible way of life—tragedies kept mounting. Manuel’s suicide in 1986, Danko’s slow decline and death by heart failure in 1999, and Helm’s passing away in 2012 from throat cancer. Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in.
Fifty years on Stage Fright is an oasis, an exhalation, a genial respite from the ongoing crucible of the Band’s accumulating days. The final moment when the music came easy, before the weight became unmanageable.
Buy: Rough Trade
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